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Five questions with Bob Swaim on 'The Art and History of Bicycles'

by on August 01, 2017 12:45 PM

Bob Swaim has been collecting bicycles of all shapes and sizes for many years. His collection features more than 200 bikes, ranging from historical replicas of the world’s first bikes to some one-of-a-kind novelty bikes. For years, Swaim has taken his collection to various festivals, giving festival-goers rides on some of his multi-person bikes.

Now Swaim and Penn State have created an exhibit called The Art and History of Bicycles featuring some of his favorite and most interesting pieces. The exhibit will be open through September 7 in the HUB-Robeson Galleries on campus. Anyone can tour the exhibit for free and learn about each of the bikes with the help of a packet describing each piece.

Swaim shared with Town & Gown his thoughts on his collection and the exhibit.

T&G: What sparked your interest in collecting bikes?

Swaim: I guess it goes back to seeing Tom Miller have a school bus full of unusual unicycles. One of the things he had was an off-center wheel bike, so I ordered one of them off of him and it was kind of cute to see people’s reactions to it. Then I got into recumbents and different things, and I forgot exactly when I did my first bicycle show, probably 1998. When I got the conference bike [a seven-seater bike] that really blew people away. Eventually I had enough bikes to do presentations at schools and museums and I thought of the portable museum and I could go where the people were.

T&G: Do you just do these shows and presentations for fun or do you plan on selling any of your bikes?

Swaim: I just do it for fun, I don’t want to make a business out of it. Some people say “oh, you must be selling something” but I don’t want to sell anything. I collected them for a reason. Someday, obviously they’re going to have to be sold but I don’t want to make it a business. If you make something a business you might lose the fun of it; if you make it into a job then it’s a whole different perspective.

T&G: How did you go about choosing which of your almost 250 bikes would be displayed in the exhibit?

Swaim: It was a tough decision to leave some out, there were probably one or two that deserved to be there too. The limited space was a factor. I tried to go with a theme of art and history and novelty so I think we covered that. If I ever did another show I might go strictly for novelty and maybe skip the history. All of my bikes I consider works of art. One that didn’t make it was my dicycle with the seven-foot diameter wheels, and that’s a good parade bike.

T&G: What do you want visitors to get out of the exhibit?

Swaim: It’s exercise, it’s engineering, the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop which gave them the engineering knowledge that lead to the first planes, health, and history. Younger people see my unique bikes they usually say “that’s a cool bike” while as we get older we get set in our ways. People think that the only way to have something is the way we have it, and that’s kind of a shame. I want people to see that there are many ways to do things, not just one way. Just because I do it one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. I’m trying to send a lesson of diversity, diversity in bikes and in people. The only reason my collection is of any interest is due to its diversity.

T&G: This is the first exhibit that you’ve done; is this something you’d like to do again?

Swaim: Yes, I’m more than willing to let people use the bikes if they want to make an exhibit with them. I’m very appreciative of Penn State letting me do an exhibit here, a lot of places wouldn’t have. I think it’s really important that Penn State embraces diversity in art. I just supplied the bikes, they set it up and put the decorations on the wall and made it look so good. 


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